The Rights of Criticism and of the Church

by B. B. Warfield

The following article is was originally published in The Presbyterian Observer, Apr. 14, 1892, pp. 2-3.

We hear a great deal nowadays of the right of Criticism, spoken with a certain air of conscious heroism, as if Criticism (with a big C, doubtless because it is "Higher"), were being dreadfully oppressed by somebody. But we know no one who denies the right of Criticism. Everybody uses it; and everybody honors it. It is the instrument by which we test truth. And in proportion as the truth is important or the claims which it makes on us are supreme, is not only the right of Criticism allowed, but its duty insisted upon. The indifference with which we allow the claim of a book to be a romance of impossible life by Mr. Rider Haggard, or a romance of impossible canon-building by Mr. Herbert E. Ryle, passes, for the student of historical politics at least, into interested alertness to the evidence when it claims to be the lost work of Aristotle on the Constitution of Athens, and for all of us into something more than interest when it claims to be the Constitution of the land in which we live, with its declaration of our rights and its safeguarding of our liberties. It ought to, and it does, rise into the keenest and the most searching critical inquiry, when the book claims, or is claimed, to be the law of God binding on all our souls, and the discovery of the only way of salvation for lost sinners. So far from the Bible being less subject to criticism than other books, we are bound to submit its unique claims to a criticism of unique rigor. Criticism is the mode of procedure by which we assure ourselves that it is what it claims to be. Who will cast his soul's eternal welfare on an uncriticized way of life? It is because we believe in criticism, and practice it with unflinching severity, that we reject the revelations of Mohammed, the book of Mormon, and the religion of Israel according to Kuenen and his fellows, and accept and rest upon the religion of Israel according to Moses and the prophets and the gospel of Christ according to the evangelists and the apostles. When such concerns are at stake, we wish to know the pure facts; and every one of us exercises all the faculties God has given him and exhausts all the tests at his command to assure himself of the facts. Criticism consists in careful scrutiny of the facts, and is good or bad in proportion to the accuracy and completeness with which the facts are apprehended and collected, and the skill and soundness with which they are marshaled and their meaning read. Deny the validity of criticism of the Bible! Nobody dreams of it. Abate the earnestness of our practice of it! At our soul's peril, we dare not. In proportion as we are awake to what the Bible means for man, will we search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.

Whence, then, arises the plaint which we hear about us, that the right of Criticism is impugned and the rights of Criticism denied? From the ineradicable tendency of man to confound the right of Criticism with the rightness of his own criticism. We may safely recognize this to be a common human tendency; for, as all of us doubtless know by this time, humanum est errare. But as soon as our attention is directed to it, the way seems to be opened to remind ourselves of a few distinctions, which it will be well for the Presbyterian Church to attend to in the crisis which is at present impending over her-a crisis the gravity of which cannot be over-estimated for a church of Christ, to which has been committed the function of being the pillar and ground of the truth.


It is not to impugn the right or the duty of criticism to declare that an untrustworthy and misleading method of criticism is not right but wrong. Criticism, we are justly told, is only a method. So is mathematics only a method. But this does not vindicate the correctness of every mathematical calculation, by every hand. Neither figures nor criticism will lie; but the men that use them may manage to reach very false conclusions through them despite their incorruptible veracity. And we soon discover, as there is mathematics and mathematics, so there is criticism and criticism. Because we believe in mathematics, we do not care to trust our weight on a bridge the strain of which has been calculated by a misleading method. An eminent professor of mathematics tells me that he can prove by an unexceptional process that one is equal to two. Some of the critics seem to have learned his method. Am I impugning the right of Criticism when I politely decline to believe that their criticism is right?

What is the present situation with regard to the criticism of the Old Testament? On the credit of a method of criticism which is discredited wherever it can be tested, we are being asked to believe that a large number of the books in the Old Testament are not the product of their apparent ages or their reputed authors, but the stratified deposits of the sea of time. On this evidence, at least, we respectfully decline. We point out the inconsequence of this method of criticism elsewhere. We recall the weary shadow-dance of similar methods in the sphere of the New Testament literature, and the recession of their boasted results into the realm of shadows whenever the light is fully turned on. We point to that admirable jeu d'esprit of the ingenuous Mr. McRealsham by which the very same methods applied satirically to the Epistle to the Romans are shown to yield parallel results-and lo! that logically compacted epistle falls apart into four underlying documents, discriminated from one another with a sharpness and a breadth which must make the Pentateuchal critic turn green from envy. Or, if we must have a real case, which is no jeu d'esprit but solemn earnest, we point to Scherer's brilliant analysis of the Prologue of Faust, which distributed its parts to their proper periods of Goethe's life, on the ground of deep-reaching differences of style and internal inconsistencies, such as were thought inexplicable save on the supposition of composition at different times and subsequent combination. But Ehrich Schmidt publishes the oldest manuscript of the poem, and lo! "it is the 'young Goethe' who wrote the prologue essentially as it now stands, in a single gush; it is the same 'young Goethe' who assumes the style at the same time of an effervescent youngster and of a cynical gray-beard." We point to the thorough refutation of this method in principle and in results by such Old Testament critics as possess enough independence of scholarship and judgment not to be swayed beyond their center of gravity by the reigning faction. Or if we glance at the method itself we are led to commend the insight of one of its founders, Graf, who already pointed out the danger of its degenerating into an argument in a circle, as we perceive that it first creates the documents it finds by distributing all the elements of one kind to each, and then proves their reality by the fact of this constant difference. We decline to be caught in this circle and whirled around until we mistake our giddiness for superior wisdom. It is not denying the right of Criticism to assert that this criticism is not right, and cannot lead to right, but only to wrong conclusions.


It is not to impugn the right of Criticism to declare that such a misleading criticism, when so far pressing beyond its mark as to curtail the trustworthiness of the witness of the Truth himself as a teacher of truth, is not only a wrong but an intolerable wrong to every Christian heart. Yet the current form of Old Testament criticism trembles on the verge of this gulf. The findings of its misleading method run athwart the implications of the words of him who spake as never man spake; and instead of adjusting its theories to accord with his teachings, it thinks of adjusting the God-man to its theories. Thus we have curious sustained efforts to minimize the amount and decisiveness of his teaching; new discussions of the propriety of "accommodation" in his teaching; and a whole new crop of studies on the limitations of our Lord's knowledge as man. When such a ball is once started rolling downwards, who knows to what it may grow? Not merely as a "critic" and as an "exegete," but also as a moralist and as a religious teacher, we shall find we have lost our Lord; if we cannot trust him as to the revelation of God (of which he, the Logos, was the revealer) of the past, how can we trust him as the revealer of God for the future? Are we indeed to say with one "critic" that "interpretation is essentially a scientific function, and one conditioned by the existence of scientific means, which in relation to the Old Testament were but imperfectly at the command of Jesus," and so rid ourselves of his authority in interpreting the Old Testament? Are we to say with another "critic" that as a logician or critic he belongs to his times, and as such had "a definite restricted outfit and outlook, which could be only those of his own day and generation"? But let us go at once to the bottom. W. Hay M. H. Aiken is reported to have permitted himself recently to use such words as these: "Literary criticism is a science, and one that requires as much exercise of mind as the pursuit of mathematics. You are not surprised that Christ, in his manhood, was not the equal of Newton in mathematical knowledge; why should you be surprised if he prove not to have been the equal of Wellhausen in literary criticism? The case may be put thus: In the truth of his manhood, Christ would naturally accept the views of his contemporaries as to the authorship of the Old Testament Scripture, just as one of us would naturally accept the common view of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays in spite of recent transatlantic theories on that subject. The only thing that would induce on his part a view that was something more than the popular opinion of the period in which he lived would be an express revelation. Of course, if God specifically revealed to Christ that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, cadit quaestio, let God be true, and every critic, if not a liar, at any rate mistaken."

But is not Christ himself God? Is it true that we could not expect him to be a "critic," because criticism requires so much exercise of mind? Are we rushing down to the pit of a new and crasser unitarianism? What Christ is this that Aiken pictures before us? Not the Christ of the Bible, who is our prophet and our guide; who is the Truth itself incarnated; who is dramatized before our eyes in the length and breadth of the Gospels, not as a child of his times, limited by the mental outlook of his day, but as a teacher to his and to all times, sent from God as not more the power of God than the wisdom of God; and whose own witness to himself was, "Verily, verily I say unto you, we speak that we know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you of earthly things and ye believed not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you heavenly things?" Is it to deny the right of Criticism, to declare that a criticism which, starting on a wrong path, rushes headlong into the very face of the Truth himself, is an intolerable wrong which no Christian heart can calmly bear?


It is not to impugn the right of Criticism to declare that those who adopt a misleading criticism as their guide to truth; and draw from it conclusions inconsistent with what is held as precious truth by the Church with which they are connected; and teach these conclusions in opposition to the public Confession of the Church; may not rightly continue to receive the endorsement of that Church as sound teachers of religion. The refusal of the Church to remain responsible before the world for their teaching is no blow at the right of Criticism in the abstract, or even at the freedom of these "critics" to teach their special form of criticism. It is, on the one hand, only the assertion by the Church of her right to teach only what she believes, without infringing in the least upon the right of others to teach what they please on their own responsibility and in their own names; and on the other hand the liberation of the new thinkers from whatever trammels to their thought and speech they may recognize as growing out of the pledges they may have taken to believe and teach the doctrines of the Church. Or is the Critic only to be free and the Church bound? Let him exercise freely his right to criticize; and let the Church also be free to test not only the truth of the Scriptures as he does, but also the truth of his theories of the Scriptures, and to act accordingly. What Democrat would feel that his liberty of thought and speech were infringed by the refusal of a Republican club to become or remain sponsor of his political teachings? But, you say, no Democrat would desire to become or remain a member of a Republican club. That is the strangeness of the situation. One wonders that a new Criticism involving, as we are told, a wholly reconstructed theology should find so much attraction in a "traditionalist" Church of an "outworn" creed; or should care to do business under its trademark.

Hear the parable of the thistles. Thistles certainly have beauties of their own, and many virtues, which nobody would care to deny. But they do seem out of place in a garden designed for roses, even though they proclaim themselves more beautiful than any roses in the garden. And the husbandman seems to have a duty towards thistles growing in the garden, which even their irritable noli me tangere ought not to deter him from executing, with all due kindness indeed, but with that firmness of touch which becomes one in dealing with thistles. Otherwise, what will he say to the Lord of the garden, whom even the more luxuriant growth of the thistles may not please, when they are tossing their bold heads in the bed intended for roses?

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